NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Top 20 Funny Cars: Let the debate begin

15 Jan 2016
Phil Burgess, National Dragster Editor


As I noted here last Friday and as was announced earlier this week on NHRA.com, NHRA will be celebrating the Funny Car class throughout the 2016 season. Using the 1966 World Finals, where NHRA crowned its first official Funny Car eliminator winner in Eddie Schartman, as the jumping-off point, we’ll spend the year looking back at the 50 years since, with some pretty cool stuff planned for national event displays and exhibition runs, driver panels, and more. We’ll be running cool articles on NHRA.com and in National Dragster to salute the history of the floppers, with a focus on the drivers and the machines. Being a Funny Car fan as early as 1971, I’m really looking forward to it, as anyone who comes here on a regular basis could have predicted.

One of my responsibilities for the celebration is to create a program saluting the top 20 Funny Cars in the sport’s history. I’m still working on the details, but as you can imagine, it’s a daunting task. Just 20 cars from 50 years? Man, that’s tough. The initial thought is to collect nominations for the list and then winnow it to 20 and have a fan vote to rank the top 20. So, who better to turn to than the loyal and knowledgeable (and opinionated!) members of the Insider Nation, right?

Those of you who have been around this gin joint since the beginning may remember the ambitious series of columns and polls I created in 2008 to determine the favorite drag race car of all time (which turned out to be the Stone, Woods & Cook A/Gas Supercharged Willys), but to get to that final vote, I had broken it down into sub-votes based on types of cars (dragsters, Funny Cars, altereds/doorslammers) and decades, so I already have a good idea on some of the favorite Funny Cars of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

What’s especially interesting about that 2008 vote by the Insider Nation was that the highest-ranking Funny Car – which finished third overall in the final voting among all classes behind S-W-C and Willie Borsch’s Winged Express fuel altered -- was “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s Vega. This is a car that only won one national event (the 1975 Summernationals) but was known the country over as “Jungle” barnstormed, amazed, and entertained fans coast to coast. Clearly, at least in the minds of Insider readers, national event or even performance-based success does not weigh into a favorites decision.

But how much should a car being a fan favorite weigh into a Top 20 Funny Cars decision? After all, fan popularity surely has to be a component of what makes a car great, right? Then you start to add the other components such as success (whether that be in winner’s circle appearances or on the timers) and things like innovations, and you start to widen the criteria for inclusion.

Any discussion probably has to begin with Don Nicholson’s Eliminator 1 Mercury Comet from 1966, one in the first batch of tube-frame, flip-top entries that helped cement the basic configuration that still exists. The car went nearly undefeated and made the class’ first seven-second run, a 7.96, in Martin, Mich., near the end of the summer. What about the ’69 Chi-Town Hustler that never won any national events but is credited as inventing the burnout that also now is synonymous with the class and that introduced the world to Austin Coil? Or the Leroy Goldstein-driven Ramchargers candy-striped terrors, one of which ran the class’ first six-second pass? Don’t forget Don Prudhomme’s incredible Army Monza, winner of 13 of 16 races in 1975-76 and the first five-second Funny Car. Or the 1970 Hot Wheels cars of Prudhomme and Tom McEwen that introduced the class to corporate sponsorship. Or any one of the many Blue Max machines, from the first to the last. Or the nearly invincible Barry Setzer Vega and driver Pat Foster or Ed McCulloch’s long line of successful Revellution machines. Or pick any number of Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King entries, from the first wind-tunnel-tested car – his 1984 Tempo – through the forward-thinking “Batmobile” Buick from 1987. The list goes on and on. I can even imagine someone suggesting Jack Beckman's Jimmy Prock-tuned Infinite Hero Charger from last year as the car that rewrote what we all thought was possible in the class today.

Then you take someone like John Force, the class’ all-time win leader, and how do you pick any one of his cars as the one (or ones) to make the list? The Pontiac that won a class-record 13 of 19 events in 1996? The Oldsmobile Firenzas and Cutlasses that won him his early titles – including his first victory – of the late 1980s and early 1990s? Can I just include “John Force Castrol cars” as a body of work?

Determining which cars make the ultimate Top 20 list and which entry ends up as the No. 1 Funny Car of all time is going to be a huge chore, and the results certainly will be a bit controversial. The fact that the list will only include 20 will mean that many, many favorites and deserving cars will be left out. Sad fact but a reality. You may remember that the 2000 vote we held for the Top 50 Drivers of all time (another ambitious project that I was charged with) received so many nominations for so many drivers that I eventually ranked not just the top 50 but the top 100, and I can tell you that there were arguments to be made for how easily some of the 51 to 100 could have cracked the top 50. Same deal here, I’m guessing.

Anyway, that’s my job, and because you’re my bench-racing buddies, your job, too. Help a pal, will ya? Send me your list of who you think should be among our Top 20. Think about the criteria above and not just who was your favorite because the guy gave you a used piston. You can email me by clicking here.

To get your juices flowing and memory banks fired up, you can review the results of our 2008 voting below:

Favorite Race Car Ever voting: Early Funny Cars

Favorite Race Car Ever voting: 1970s Funny Cars

Favorite Race Car Ever voting: 1980s and Beyond

I look forward to your thoughts and opinions.